Man United were comfortable 3-0 winners against a Sunderland side, now searching desperately for a win, to get them propping up the Barclays Premier League Table. The win now takes Louis van Gaal’s men on top of the table following their neighbours’ 4-1 thrashing at White Hart Lane earlier in the day. Here we look at some of the talking points from the match at Old Trafford:
The Philosophy works- but conditionally: It seems, after some 14 months’ hard labour, that Louis van Gaal’s famed philosophy seems clear – possession based football from side to side, stretching the opposition and drawing them into committing men forward, followed by, in an ideal world, incisive and clinical finishes. However, as seen both at St Mary’s against a Southampton team going all guns blazing and again today against a naturally deep-lying Sunderland side, that that first goal for United is what ties the entire thing together.
It is only after United gain, or regain, some foothold in the game that this particular approach seems to pay dividends. Prior to that, it is at times ponderous to the extent of pedestrian for supporters to watch; sideways passes and the absence of attacking risk-taking was never the norm under Sir Alex. Gone, however, are the days of wave after wave of attack, but this measured approach, albeit a novel one for long-time observers at Old Trafford, seems a viable alternative, but only when some impetus has been gained by the Reds.
Sunderland need five fingers to become a fist: Dick Advocaat has had plenty of time to sort out basic things for his team, not least of which include his favoured centre-half pairing, his preferred formation and a plan of attack that suits the line-up picked on the day of the match. This season, it has been far too easy to take Sunderland apart, despite the valiant efforts of Lee Cattermole, with inconsistency plaguing the centre-halves and link-up play not being up to the mark amongst the forward players. They have brought a lot of players into the club, the likes of Jermain Defoe and Jeremain Lens amongst them, but there seems to be an ample amount of confusion surrounding Advocaat’s best side – not to mention whether they intend to defend deep and play on the break as an away team or press high up the pitch.
Both approaches were seen against United, with limited results, and the only time the latter way seemed to be working was against Tottenham earlier in the season: a match wherein again, the Black Cats failed to capitalise on their chances. The signs are promising, though; the team seems to be starting to come into its own. The only question remains is whether that happens soon enough for the Jordies, with the Weir-Tyne derby, one of the pivotal fixtures for both Newcastle and Sunderland, fast approaching.
The United engine room still lies shrouded in uncertainty: Michael Carrick, for all the service provided over the years for the Reds, is but a shadow of his former self and prefers the safe sideways or backward pass to an incisive, “risky” one. True, some shades of his former self remain, such as the pass for Ander Herrera that led to the penalty against Liverpool in early September, but by and large, at 34, he is running out of legs and ideas in the heart of midfield. Schweinsteiger adds a touch of the Paul Scholes with his sheer controlling influence and 1- or 2-touch passing, but needs to adjust to the rigours of the Premier League- not an easy task at the age of 31. Morgan Schneiderlin, however, looks nothing like the commanding presence he did for Southampton for the past several years now. True, his interception and tackling are good as ever, but he functions best with the forward pass always an option to a winger or a number 10- a luxury not always afforded to him this season, owing to far too many nervous or superfluous passes. There is a large gap at times between the lines of midfield and attack for United, and getting the holding areas serviced by the best possible players in the team is vital to not losing out in midfield duels. Daley Blind, incidentally, has seemed much more suited to a creative holding midfielder from centre-back than Carrick or Schneiderlin this season.
Are the North-Eastern sides destined for the drop? : It was last under Steve Bruce that the Black Cats managed a win in either August or September- something that seems like an eternity ago. With their only victories since then, at the start of the season coming against lower-tier opposition in the Capital One cup, Sunderland need an injection of enthusiasm, or that one massive result that really kick-starts their entire season, albeit belatedly. In the recent past that fixture has tended to be against Newcastle, with Sunderland seeming to have their most fiercely-contested opposition’s number. They, however, cannot afford to let their season only start so belatedly if they are to continue in the Premier League.
True, Dick Advocaat may have engineered a miraculous escape last season, but if there’s one thing we know for certain is that miracles don’t repeat themselves with such astounding regularity in the Premier league, not least of which in relegation dogfights. Newcastle, too, under Steve McClaren are yet to get things right. The situations are jarringly similar- despite the outlay of bringing in more players, the side simply lacks that cutting edge to them in matches. Newcastle already suffered a shock relegation some years ago – neither side, historically, has been away from the top tier of English football for long, but at this point in time, it seems they are destined for the Championship should things continue in this way.
Square pegs seem to fit into round holes for United: Louis van Gaal helped raise the eyebrows of many in the footballing fraternity last season, with the tinkering in formations and in his players’ favoured positions. Angel di Maria is not Arjen Robben, Wayne Rooney is not Paul Scholes, and Antonio Valencia has been facing an identity crisis for quite some time now. This season, in its infancy though it is yet, there seems to be a better understanding amongst the team. Chris “don’t call me Mike” Smalling has come along in leaps and bounds to make the right centre-back’s role his own, Daley Blind still amazes with his versatility more than anything else, and Juan Mata seems to be getting used to playing as an inverted winger, chipping in with goals and assists with more regularity than arguably anyone else in the side.
The introduction of Matteo Darmian, Memphis Depay (who seems to save his best for non-league matches) and Anthony Martial, the current toast of the red half of Manchester, look to be the sort of shrewd signings that have earned van Gaal his reputation over the decades. Whilst some may argue that a lot of money has been thrown and all that has been done is papering over the deep cracks (and there is yet merit in that argument), it is now clearer what LvG has wanted all along from his side, and if afforded more time, could yet prove to be a highly expensive, but ultimately a fruitful experiment.